I had this op-ed in The Christchurch Press last week. I doesn’t seem to be online anywhere so I’m posting the text here for linking purposes!
Paunch, pay and patriarchy
I read with a twist of humour and trauma the results from the University of Otago’s Christchurch Health and Development Study reported recently in many media outlets. Apparently your body mass index is related to related to your pay.
It’s actually not that surprising a result, in fact it’s one that social scientists have known about for quite a while. Fortunately (for some of us) it seems that if you are a man then you need not worry. Obese men like me with a body mass index number above 30 actually earn a fair chunk more than men with a supposed ‘healthy’ BMI. Naturally I immediately emailed Human Resources and asked for my ‘large human bearing phallus’ bonus (they never replied).
Ok, so that’s the humour, now the trauma. There is no doubt that it is an interesting finding – and certainly one that is worth bringing to the public’s attention. But what worries me is the explanation.
I am going to give Associate Professor John Horwood the benefit of the doubt and a fair hearing here – he was obviously asked to provide some sort of explanation as to why this kind of specific inequality exists – and he clarified his response as “conjecture”. In relation to women, he is quoted as saying, “Not only is there more stigma attached to weight and body composition for women but they may also be more likely to perceive being overweight or obese as a source of stress or adversity.”
Fair point – but this is not conjecture, there is evidence in the social science domain to back this up (in fact, there is plenty of evidence). In relation to men he is not quoted directly but suggested that they may earn more because of a supposed link between body size and status and/or that the busy schedules of the important well-paid men resulted in ‘poor eating’, thus they got larger. This second point is certainly conjecture – and the benign rationale given for this significant finding hides the far more insidious reality at play here: patriarchy.
Simply put, large men are not punished financially like large women because men live protected from judgment in so many aspects of their lives – including judgment by body mass.
This is particularly evident in John Horwood’s response to the reporter. He hits the nail on the head with regard to subjugation of women – we all know this to be the case, and here is more evidence. But he glosses over the weird male result, and chalks it down to either a tired anthropological relationship between body size and social status or a functionalist relationship between busy schedules and bad habits.
What the article misses is the far more insidious and prevalent power relation that our society is built on. This is the reality of the experience of the two dominant genders in the New Zealand workplace (not to mention the myriad of other genders). Women are not treated as equal to men, in terms of pay, in conditions and in representation in management positions. We can now nuance that already well-established list with the different impacts of body mass – unsurprisingly.
The task before us as a society is a complex one – when we encounter these disparities we need to see (and understand) patriarchy first, and make every attempt to call it that. What the researchers have not done in this case is to develop a suitable explanatory framework, based in established social theory to contextualize the results of their study.
So when John Horwood is ‘put on the spot’ by the reporter he reverts back to the latent patriarchy that the vast majority of us (including me) reproduce in our everyday speech. Thus the obese men in the study are represented as hard working and successful, their mass testament to their struggles for the good of the company, while the women are relegated to sad, desperate, stressed-out, low-paid fatties.
The academic community needs to do better than this – I could easily name ten critical social scientists in New Zealand who could have provided a theoretical explanation of this ‘surprising’ finding, most in less then three sentences. I am certainly not against this type of research being conducted, in fact I will likely use these data in my own work. But I would implore my academic colleagues to be very careful with their conjecture – patriarchy does not need to work in mysterious ways.